Dr. Rachel Castaneda gives L.A. communities a public health voice in marijuana policy-making.

The Los Angeles Marijuana Advisory Committee met eight times during the summer to discuss regulatory policies put into place for non-business communities across the Los Angeles county. Among the members on the board of advisors was Rachel Castaneda, Ph.D., an APU professor and research psychologist who strives to bring balance to discussions in council meetings.

The advisory’s mission is “to develop recommendations that will provide a framework for the development of regulations for commercial and personal-use cannabis in unincorporated areas of Los Angeles County.” The recommendations made by board members aim to be examples for other counties and guides for local policymakers.

As an active member on the committee, Castaneda provides a voice for smaller communities that express public health concerns. She explained many families are concerned about Prop. 64’s effect on neighborhoods and how youth are at higher risk of exposure to the drug.

Under the proposition, those over the age of 21 are able to possess, buy and transport a maximum amount of 28.5 grams of marijuana. It prohibits the sale and purchase to minors who do not have a medicinal card under the age of 21.

“My interest stemmed from my desire to speak into policy that takes into consideration the perspectives of the community, has a public health interest in mind—not just economic interest, but balance,” Castaneda said.

Castaneda explained the attendees of the June to Aug. community listening sessions in unincorporated areas of Los Angeles county were not all community members, but many were business and industry representatives.

“The voices that were part of the community made you wonder how the proposition even got passed,” she said.

Among these communities, there are two clashing arguments about the use of marijuana. Some believe it is a drug that harms children and communities, while others believe in social equity and how the legalization would have a positive impact on young minorities in prison.

“It’s an interesting debate and considerations on both sides are valid,” Castaneda said. “However, from my perspective and the lens I bring, is that exposure and access are very important; we have research conducted by the National Institution of Drug Abuse (NIDA) that has shown that early exposure to marijuana and early initiation increases risk for poor substance use trajectories and other issues that go with substance use: mental health issues, school and family dysfunctions.”

A popular defense of marijuana is it does not have a history of fatalities. However, Castaneda believes otherwise. “There’s studies now that show it leads to psychosis—there’s higher rates of suicides, so they’re killing themselves.”

In addition, Castaneda expressed her concern for the placement of ads and dispensaries that could potentially be exposed to minors, similar to alcohol and tobacco companies targeting inner-city minorities. According to Castaneda, the policies around ad placements related to desensitizing the harms of marijuana need to be considered.

“More and more national surveys are showing that the attitudes about risks and harms with marijuana, among the general public not just the youth, are very low,” she said. “Research by NIDA has shown that there’s an inverse correlation between risk attitudes and behavior. As the perceptions of risk decrease, their attitudes get more open and their behaviors have a tendency to increase their use.”

A public health concern with youth is a lack of understanding on the different variations of intoxication levels, strains of marijuana and the levels of THC potency, Castaneda explained.

“We’re mimicking alcohol, but there are so many different types of products [of marijuana] that need to be tested before those policies are put in place, so this committee spoke into that, which is very important. But it all comes back to protecting our youth and communities that are so hard hit with disparities, economic hardships, food insecurities (major fast food chains), tobacco, alcohol and now adding pot shops,” she said.

The economic opportunities that are discussed during the council’s meetings highlight how legalization will offer financial aid from investment returns to these communities instead of harm them. However, Castaneda is skeptical about how much of those returns are actually going back to communities who have struggling systems.

“I don’t think it’s well thought out,” she said. “They just think ‘well we’re gonna have all this money.'”

Castaneda believes there has been severe misuse of marijuana in culture “disguised as recreation,” similar to the country’s opioid epidemic. “Any continued use of a psychoactive substance, there’s a risk.”

The concerns researchers have when dealing with substance use among youth are effects into adulthood when their brains are fully developed, Castaneda disclosed. “Over time with continued repeated use, drugs change the brain, they change the central nervous system and they interact with the environment and individual characteristics—and with that, there’s a recipe for addiction.”